By Caroline de Sury
PARIS (OSV News) — In a rather unusual moment for secular France, the president of the country confirmed he will attend Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Marseille Sept. 23.
“It’s my responsibility to go,” Emmanuel Macron said Sept. 15, adding he would not be going “as a Catholic” but as the “president of the French Republic, which is indeed secular.” He said he would not be “practicing religion” during the Mass, according to Le Monde.
The pope is scheduled to meet with Macron during the two-day trip, according to information released by the Vatican July 29.
Highlighting the Mediterranean as the sea that connects nations, cultures and religions across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Pope Francis will travel to the southern French city Sept. 22-23 for a meeting of bishops, civic leaders and young people from across the region.
Some 70 bishops are expected to attend the meeting in Marseille in addition to representatives from other churches, according to promotional materials for the meeting. Approximately 60 Mediterranean mayors also have been invited as well as young people.
France, underlining the separation of church and state, was surprised to see its president confirm he will be present at the papal Mass. In fact, a large number of Catholics outside Marseille had little interest in the upcoming apostolic trip.
“The pope is coming to Marseille; it’s not a visit for the whole of France,” several Catholics who did not wish to disclose their names told OSV News in Paris. In Brittany, a western region near the Atlantic Ocean, a parish priest had the same reaction. “It does not interest me at all, since I am not on the Mediterranean,” he said. One of Brittany’s bishops, Denis Moutel, will not go to Marseille for the occasion. On the same day as the pope’s Mass, he will visit a parish to celebrate the centenary of a village church in a rural area.
“The French bishops know they are not really expected in Marseille,” Father Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon, head of the archdiocesan Service for information Professionals in Paris, explained to OSV News. “They were invited by Cardinal (Jean-Marc) Aveline, archbishop of Marseille, but many of them are going there just out of decency towards the pope,” the priest said.
There are, however, many truly excited about the visit. Bishop Renauld Dupont de Dinechin of Soissons, a diocese not far from Paris, told OSV News that he will be on site to organize a broadcast of the pope’s Mass in a vast gymnasium, with 400 people, to be followed by a buffet dinner offered by the diocese. Before being named a bishop, then-Father de Dinechin was a parish priest in a city close to Paris, with a large immigrant population. His idea is to get as many people as possible involved in the papal event.
Among lay Catholics, irritation was mounting over concerns that the pope’s visit could be hijacked by politics with Macron confirming his presence during Mass and a law on immigration currently under debate in the French Parliament sparking controversy. The law is designed to better control immigration.
The issue of immigration in France is extremely sensitive, as demonstrated by the violent riots in June and July, following the death of Nahel M., a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre June 27. Those on the ground see a great deal of latent violence in France today, especially among young people. A spark can set these neighborhoods ablaze, experts say.
Father Stalla-Bourdillon, who served as chaplain to the French parliamentary world from 2012 to 2018, told OSV News, “After the July riots, the pope’s visit will put a kind of balm on the wounds of a society struggling to maintain its unity. It would be reductive to analyze his words through a political prism,” he said. “He tells us that it is urgent to put fraternity at the heart of our concern. There is a space between the pope’s words and political action, that is the conscience of each individual and political responsibility.”
“The pope invites us to set up ‘processes of encounter,’ so that encounter becomes our culture,” Arnaud de Carmantrand, general manager of the Catholic association Le Rocher, told OSV News. “Our vocation is to go out and meet others, and to teach our children to do the same”.
In nine of France’s most disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, including Marseille’s northern suburbs, Le Rocher implements educational, social and cultural initiatives, thanks to volunteers, young people and families who live there, in low-income housing projects. They work in close collaboration with public services.
“Our action is one of a secular popular education,” explained de Carmantrand, “but the purpose of their daily life with those underprivileged families is to give more dignity and recognition to the people they work and live with.” “We feel in complete harmony with the vision developed by the pope, in his encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti,'” de Carmantrand noted.
“A Christian is not made to sleep easy,” a Catholic high-ranking French civil servant who preferred to remain anonymous told OSV News. “The pope disturbs us a little. … He reminds us of the Gospel message, even if we do not want to hear it right now, when we feel that France is not in a position to welcome all the wretched who knock on our door.”
“The generosity of the French system of national solidarity attracts many people,” he added.
“But this can only work if it is properly financed. At the moment, the system is very fragile. The state is short of money and finds it hard to raise salary levels for the school teachers, and thus to attract more of them to provide better care for children from the immigrant population, which clearly needs more investment and attention,” the civil servant said.
Ahead of the papal visit in Marseille, which aims to put the migration crisis in Europe in the spotlight, Macron announced Sept. 15 the launch of a fund-raising campaign to renovate thousands of endangered religious buildings across France — a move seen as a gift to Catholics ahead of the papal trip.
Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris. CNS contributed to this story.